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4 Functions of Behavior: Understanding ABA Therapy

functions of behavior in children
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In the field of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), it is thought that there is always an explanation for all behavior. Our behavior always has a purpose, although it may not be obvious. All behavior can be divided into one (or more) of four reasons, known as functions. These 4 functions of behavior can be classified as attention, escape, tangible, and sensory[1]

Understanding why a person is engaging in a specific behavior may be difficult, but determining the functions of behavior can help create a treatment plan to decrease or increase the behavior.

What are the four functions of behavior? 

1. Attention (Connection). When someone engages in a behavior with the purpose of gaining attention, it is known as attention seeking. Children may sometimes act out in order to receive attention, even if it is not positive. Nonetheless, it is vital to remember that not all attention-seeking behavior is necessarily bad. For example, raising your hand to be called on in class and screaming for someone to come over are both forms of attention seeking, but one is more socially acceptable than the other.

2. Escape (Avoidance). Escaping is a common practice. People employ this behavior in order to avoid or end a disagreeable experience. As an example, a child may behave in an unacceptable manner to avoid a task they would rather not complete. This could include sleeping during class instead of working or taking an alternate route home to avoid heavy traffic.

3. Tangible (Attaining). In order to obtain something they desire or to take part in an activity of interest, a person may engage in a certain type of behavior. For example, a child may scream for a toy or finish their homework for access to television time. This is an example of how behaviors can have tangible functions.

4. Sensory (Automatic). When people engage in certain activities that make them feel good or help them to get rid of negative emotions, this is called stimulating the senses. An example of this could be scratching an ant bite or waving a fan on a hot day.

Positive and Negative Reinforcements 

Generally, behaviors can have two purposes. A child may behave in a manner to gain something, known as positive reinforcement, or to avoid something, known as negative reinforcement. The reasoning behind these behaviors is to either obtain something or to get rid of something.

Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement can be more easily grasped by considering the attention and sensory reinforcement. Positive reinforcement through attention would be when a child receives something as a result of the actions of another. For instance, if a child asks their father for a blanket and the father gives it to them, that is an example of attention positive reinforcement. On the other hand, negative reinforcement could be when the father takes away the blanket if the child does not want to use it anymore.

In automatic reinforcement, reinforcement occurs without any assistance from another person. For example, a child getting their own blanket is an example of positive reinforcement. On the other hand, if the child pushes the blanket off of themselves, this would be considered negative reinforcement.

How Solstice BHC can help.

To better understand why a child is displaying certain behaviors, it is necessary to understand the four functions of behavior and to recognize that a single behavior may serve multiple purposes. Additionally, it is important to recognize both positive and negative reinforcements in order to understand the root cause of the behavior. By pinpointing these functions, we can help children meet their needs in positive ways. This is the basis of ABA Therapy and the underlying teaching mechanism for all of our services and activities.

At Solstice Behavioral Health & Consulting, our staff will watch your child to see how they act in their natural environment. We will carefully note what happens before and after any targeted behaviors they show in order to determine the purpose of the behavior. Once we have evaluated them, we will teach them alternate behaviors. The aim is to reduce the undesired behaviors and promote the desired behaviors so that your child has consistent behavior in all settings and learns the necessary life skills for success.

We Believe That Early Diagnosis & Intervention Is Key.